Two British artists, one a long time teacher and sculptor, the other a painter and long time resident of the US, are currently the subjects of wide ranging surveys in London devoted to their less familiar work on paper. Richard Smith (b. 1931) made his name early on with paintings imbued with the American spirit, blending pop iconography with his exposure first to colour field painting and then to minimalism. Following shows at the Whitechapel, Hayward and Tate, he moved full time to New York, the beating heart of modernism, in 1976. In stark contrast Phyllida Barlow (b.1944) attracted little public notice before her retirement five years ago from full time teaching, since when she has been taken up by Hauser & Wirth and catapulted into the major league with a series of shows arranged in quick succession across Europe and America.
While they share some common ground – both working through Sixties visual culture and modes of abstraction before breaking out of the frame and investigating the impact of colour on space – what these exhibitions reveal is the way an artist’s career is as much about timing as achievement. Richard Smith remains very much of his time and the range of work on paper reflects this, from the early experiments to later works that appear principally to reiterate familiar themes and devices. His show affords us a backward glance where Phyllida Barlow’s has a forward momentum, starting with what we now know of her and tracing this back across fifty years of experimentation to try and see where it (and she) came from.
The drawings serve a narrative – one of a personal odyssey, unburdened by critical attention, that is largely intuitive and unresolved, and the other a formally consistent and visible progress marked by serial production – which have been fashioned by the respective shows at Flowers and Hauser & Wirth into a respectable abstract modernist past and a vibrant post-modern present. It is telling that in the current display at Tate Britain, Smith’s ‘Piano’ 1963, seen then as a radical break with the picture plane, now hangs only a short distance from Barlow’s ‘dock’, a pulsing mass of rising and collapsing structures in the Duveen Gallery next door. Where one explores the tension between wall-bound image, physical object and surrounding space, the other invades and breaks down the cavernous space into a vast array of unstable objects. The shapes and colours in Smith’s earlier pieces are vivid exercises in optical potential, as he opens up the surface by cutting, projecting and folding the paper. There is a sense of things being systematically tried out for use on a larger scale. The bright cosmetic colouring, drawn from billboards and packaging, also serves (in a way that’s similar to Barlow’s crayon drawings from the same period) to generate new spatial relationships; and their physical properties become more pronounced in the next series from the 1990s, despite the work now becoming more schematic and pared down. A series of minimal constructions, hovering between image and object, play out in sequence as variations on a single theme in which three brightly painted rotating elements suspended within the frame interact with the loosely orchestrated lines and markings on the white surface beneath.
The rectangle begins to reassert itself in the more recent work, perhaps to mark out edges for prints or paintings, but with little in the way of correction or redrafting to suggest a rigorous working process. Like the boxed constructions they remain constrained by their frames and borders rather than breaking free of them (as his Kite paintings once did). Despite their elegant calligraphic rhythms (something they share with Brice Marden’s work of the same period) they start to read more as patterns than explorations and it is hard to tell if they are designed as rehearsals for future paintings or simply to illustrate a set of established motifs.
Smith’s drawings relate to each other within a tightly defined language, one that appears increasingly ordered and resolved; Barlow’s by contrast are improvised and unpredictable, a natural extension of her physical engagement with the disordered stuff of the world. She refers to them as ‘bad copies’, rough approximations of things she has seen and remembered. Drawing does not function here as a parallel activity – it is absolutely central to her practice, the precursor and testing ground for work in three dimensions. ‘I am always hoping that most of the things that are drawn are going to get made. Things are drawn, then they often get made small, and then things get sorted out to make them big.’ Critically they also serve as an archive, the only record she has of earlier installations that have been destroyed and recycled.
Early on Barlow uses her sketches to filter an eclectic mix of ideas and influences. She conjures fragmented shapes in space from a multitude of lines in crayon and candy colours that freely combine elements of pop and arte povera with the painted forms of New Generation sculptors Anthony Caro and Philip King. What begin as disordered interiors filled with doorways, walls, and bits of furniture gradually give way to more severely demarcated enclosures in the 1970s, with dense charcoal studies that refer initially to Ad Reinhardt and then later on (when they are cropped and enfolded) to Richard Serra. Despite the scale of the show (a few hundred pieces taken from over a thousand in her working archive) there is a gap of twenty years after Untitled 1979 – 1981, before a new and much more resolved body of work begins in 2001, since when ‘drawing has become a very important part of how I make the sculptures’. There is a greater sense of urgency, ‘as it has now become essential for me to get thoughts about possible works down as directly and as quickly as possible’.
The freedom that once came from a private and ad hoc process, without any drive for consistency or a signature style, now gives way to more formally realized work, in which colour is used to robustly mark off space from objects. Contrasted forms rendered in acrylic washes suggest bundles and stacks of industrial material, as well as rolls of fencing, frames and scaffolds, each isolated and thrown into relief by heavy shadows, giving them a physical presence and weight within the densely brushed grounds which hold them in place. These drawings, quickly made if slow in gestation, contain within them the essential ‘coded instructions’ for her three-dimensional constructs. If Smith’s drawings increasingly read over forty years as records of formal outcomes, Barlow’s have yielded up a working method that is as much, if not more, to do with process than outcome. She may be seventy but her output for 2013 alone (‘100 drawings’, illustrated) points to a career with some way yet to go.